Why God Delights in the Metric System

Fairness and justice were difficult before we looked to creation for our measurements. /

There are few sermon series on the metric system. There are Christian books about rulers aplenty, but always about the kinds with crowns, not marks. The scales you hear about at church are the ones that fell from Paul’s eyes—not the ones that weigh goods.

But in the Bible, God cares a lot about measurement. There are laws about measurement. Proverbs on measurement. Those money-changers in the temple? They were likely using measurement shenanigans (money was based, after all, on weight).

We take it for granted that we have accurate, universally accepted measures. We fail to realize the value of the metric system. It’s not just about better science. Standardized, accurate measurement is necessary for justice.

That’s not an overstatement. For most of human history, powerful people could tip the scales, literally.

Hebrew law protected against this. Leviticus sets a standard weight for money. Only the “shekel of the sanctuary” and later the “shekel of the king” were to be used in fulfilling the law. Deuteronomy includes specific prohibitions against even owning two different weights, one heavier and one lighter.

Such laws point to the problems of measurement. Measures were parochial, often varying from region to region or even village to village. A landowner could demand a larger “bushel” when collecting from a serf and then sell it using a smaller “bushel.”

Northwestern University historian Ken Adler’s history of the development of the meter and the metric system lays out the problem. In France alone, there were over 250,000 different units of measure. People would use one measure of length for short things (the span of a hand) and another for longer distances (a day’s walk). Quantities of volume changed depending on whether you were measuring liquid or solid, grain or wine. Calculating the relationship between measures was nearly impossible, and made worse because measures often varied by whether a person was buying or selling a good.

The genius of the metric system was that it based measurement on universal standards. This began with the measurement of the meter.

The meter wasn’t like other measures. It wasn’t meant to be an arbitrary distance measured by a stick. It was derived from the distance around the planet we all share. Specifically, it was set to be one-ten-millionth of the distance of 10 degrees at sea level. In theory, anyone at any other place on the globe could determine the length of a meter.

Ken Adler’s The Measure of All Things chronicles the amazing story of Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain. The two men were charged with measuring the distance of the meridian that ran through Paris. Difficult in any era, this meant triangulating distances between church towers, hilltops, and monuments from Barcelona and Dunkirk during the French Revolution. It took Delambre and Méchain seven years to complete the task. In 1799, the official meter was determined.

It turned out that the earth isn’t the best standard on which to base a measure. The planet isn’t smooth. It’s a misshapen lump with bulges and depressions. Still, the idea of a universal measure took hold (albeit with some fits and starts). Today, the meter is based on a truly universal measure: light. A meter is officially the distance that light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second.

Other metric measures are similarly based on nature. With a measure of a meter, one could calculate volume. Weight was based on volume—a gram was set to be the weight of a cubic centimeter of water. Temperature was based on when water froze or boiled. Such measures were no longer provincial; they were set to standards that transcended national and tribal boundaries.

The result is a set of measures accepted by 95 percent of the world. But even in America (the most noteworthy holdout), our feet, miles, and pounds are now defined by the metric system. A pound is 0.45359237 kilograms. One yard is 0.9144 meters. Americans may think we’re thumbing our noses at the metric system, but we use it all the time by proxy.

It’s an amazing development. The whole earth now uses one system to measure everything. The same measures are used by rich and poor, tax-collector and tax-payer, landlord and tenant.

“Honest scales and balances belong to the Lord; all the weights in the bag are of his making” (Prov. 16:11).

That’s what I see in the metric system: Honest, accurate measures based not on nation or tribe but on universal aspects of God’s creation.

Imagine what the temple market would have been like with such a system. Jews from throughout the world were coming to Passover. They would be bringing with them coins and other goods to purchase sacrifices. There would be no dispute over whether the pilgrim’s gram of silver was really a gram. It’s much harder to cheat someone if they have the same access to the official measures.

We see this in the Volkswagen emissions scandal. The company rigged its vehicles to deceive regulators. But it took just a few researchers at West Virginia University with access to the same measurement instruments to uncover the deception. A common standard doesn’t eliminate corruption, but it makes trickery much more difficult.

The misuse of measures is not trivial to God. In Proverbs 11:1, the Lord is said to detest dishonest scales (they’re an “abomination” in the KJV) and delight in accurate measures. Why? Because God loves justice.

In Micah 6, just after the well-known requirement “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God,” the Lord condemns those who have gained from dishonest measures:

Heed the rod and the One who appointed it.
Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house,
and the short ephah, which is accursed?

Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales,
with a bag of false weights? ( vv. 9-11)

God demands honest, accurate measures of length (rod), volume (ephah), and weight. The metric system obviously didn’t create a just and peaceful world; good measurement is necessary for justice, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Still, the metric system has tipped the scales toward the right. God will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line (Isa. 28:17). But for now, he has made measuring lines and plumb lines the tools of his justice and righteousness.

Tobin Grant is professor of political science at Southern Illinois University and blogs at Religion News Service.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 39 / January 7, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from January 05, 2016

    Issue 39: Your brain’s missing links, the scales of justice, and why seeing sin is such a relief. /

  2. Hallelujah, I’m a Miserable Sinner

    It’s only after we meet our Savior that we understand how much we need him. /

  3. Creation by Subtraction

    Be thankful you’ve lost much of your mind since your youth. /

  4. Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes

    “Shall I devolve into dust bunnies?” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 39: Links to amazing stuff.

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